|A smile at being part of the the EuroBasket All-Tournament team was masking the real disappointment Linas Kleiza (second from left) was feeling after his team lost the gold medal game to France |
By Dimitris Kontos
A picture might be worth a thousand words, but sometimes even a thousand pictures could not accurately portray what goes on in the human mind as it races through a myriad of emotions.
There is plenty of photographic evidence depicting Linas Kleiza with a smile on his face on the night of 22 September in Ljubljana, as he stands among his Lithuanian team-mates on the podium of EuroBasket 2013 to receive his silver medal from FIBA Europe Secretary General Kamil Novak.
Lithuania's number 11 also appears to be smiling between the rather gloomy Marc Gasol and Bojan Bogdanovic as he receives his trophy as a member of the EuroBasket All-Tournament Team.
These photos however cannot possibly capture the internal struggle of one the best European players of our time at that moment.
"There is no question, it was the toughest loss of my career," Kleiza revealed to fibaeurope.com, as he briefly cast his mind back at the day of the EuroBasket final against France.
"It was very hard to take in then, and it still is very hard until this day.
"We didn't perform as well, the silver medal is good but we had a chance [at gold] and we came so close.
"We were really playing well but within minutes we fell apart."
Kleiza had entered the gold medal clash as if possessed by the devil, scoring 16 points in just over 14 minutes to propel Lithuania to a 29-27 lead.
He sat on the bench to catch his breath and France went on a superb 23-5 run, never to look back again.
"You know, the team that wins always deserves the medal, there is no way around it," Kleiza admitted.
"They wanted it and they deserved it, how could we deserve it, playing like that?"
SWAN SONG IN LJUBLJANA?
|Linas Kleiza suggests that EuroBasket 2013 in Slovenia may be the last time he is cited playing in a Lithuanian jersey|
Kleiza recently turned 29 and, unfortunately for fans of the Baltic nation, the desire to chase that elusive gold medal will not serve as motivation to pull on the Lithuania jersey for much longer.
It might come as a shock, but there is a considerable possibility the traumatic EuroBasket 2013 final was actually his swan song with the national team.
"You know, I think this was probably my last summer playing [with the national team]," Kleiza revealed.
"I am not so young any more so, going forward, it's going to be a tough decision.
"Of course I am not sure, because there is a long way to go in the season and you don't want to make these decisions right now.
"As I said, going forward, this is going to be a very tough decision but we have got good young guys, so probably they will take over."
Kleiza has been a linchpin of the Lithuanian national team since the 2006 World Championship, delivering outstanding performances to help them conquer bronze at EuroBasket 2007 and the 2010 World Championship, in addition to the silver medal last September.
During all those years, he only missed out at the home EuroBasket in 2011, due to a serious injury.
"I love my country, I tried to give everything I have got and I did it during many years," the charismatic forward said.
"It's a great honour to represent your country."
NEED TO GET ROLLING
|Linas Kleiza says that he does not miss playing basketball in North America|
Kleiza's conversation with fibaeurope.com came in the wake of Fenerbahce's third straight defeat in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Top 16, 89-75 at Unicaja Malaga.
Like all elite athletes, he is not at all fond of losing and this three-game skid was definitely not part of his plans for his return to Europe following a three-year spell at the Toronto Raptors.
"I'm happy to be back but it's tough right now because we lost three games in a row and we need to start winning right away," the Lithuanian star said.
"Then everything will just take care of itself.
"Istanbul is great, everything is great there.
"But we have got to get wins, we need to get rolling."
Kleiza spent the first four years of his professional career at the Denver Nuggets and had only played previously for a top European club in the 2009/10 season, when a star-studded Olympiacos side reached the Euroleague Final Four but failed to conquer the trophy.
He left for his second tour of duty in the NBA but has now returned to find European basketball almost at the same level as he left it, over three years ago.
"There is no differences, everything is the same," Kleiza offered.
"That's the thing in Europe, it's the system, and even if you find different players, they play the same system.
"It's not star-driven like the NBA but you have also got good players here, it is just a very different [to the NBA] system.
"That's why the level is always so high and you can lose in any game."
One wonders if he's had second thoughts, whether he us ever nostalgic of the game on the other side of the Atlantic.
"I don't miss anything," Kleiza replied swiftly.
"I am just glad to be able to play basketball and play for a great club, Fenerbahce.
"It doesn't matter to me, it's basketball here and it's basketball there.
"As long as I am doing what I love doing, it's all you can ask for."